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Food Allergy, Intolerance, Sensitivity: Oh My! How to Tell the Difference

food allergy

The terms food allergy, food intolerance, and food sensitivity often get used interchangeably. Yet, they describe three completely different types of reactions. So how can you tell the difference between the three, and why is it important to know the difference? Here’s a quick rundown of the different terms and how they impact your body: 

1. Food Allergy
A true food allergy is caused by an Ig-E mediated reaction which occurs within minutes of ingesting specific foods. These reactions can be very serious and even life-threatening. An example of the most well-known classic food allergy is a peanut and other tree nuts allergy that can cause throat constriction, swelling of the face, hives, and difficulty breathing. Fortunately, a food allergy is not the most common reason that people feel unwell after eating certain foods. 

2. Food Intolerances
Food intolerances are caused by the inability to make certain enzymes needed to break down parts of some foods. For example, lactose intolerance is the inability to break down the sugar in dairy products due to a deficiency in the lactase enzyme. Another example is gluten intolerance, which is the cause of Celiac disease. 

3. Food Sensitivities
This is the most common reaction I see at my practice. Food sensitivities are delayed reactions to food that can occur hours to days after ingesting them. Because the reactions occur so long after eating the food, it can be difficult to identify immune triggers. Common food sensitivities and reactions I see in my practice are nightshades (tomato, eggplant, potato, peppers), wheat, and dairy, which all can cause joint pain, skin rashes, and fatigue. 

The Right Testing

With the basics of the three terms covered, let’s talk about the best way to test for them. Conventional allergy testing is great at identifying true food allergies, however, it often misses food intolerances and food sensitivities. One of the best ways to identify food intolerances and sensitivities is with a diet diary and an elimination diet. 

The diet diary comes in handy because when you record your food intake and symptoms of how you feel after eating certain foods, it allows you to identify what reactions you have to them.  An elimination diet is another helpful method to identify if you have reactions to certain foods. This involves eating hypoallergenic foods for at least three weeks and then reintroducing foods one by one to determine if there are any reactions. 

There are more specific testing methods that can be done to identify food intolerances and sensitivities. It’s best to talk to your naturopathic or functional medicine doctor to find out more. At Wellness Integrative, I work with a variety of patients who experience food allergies, food intolerances, and food sensitivities. Together, we create a dietary plan that can help you avoid all three problems. To learn more about our services, give us a call at 949.551.8751. 

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